Baltimore police Marine Unit scans harbor

In this 2003 file photo, Baltimore Police Sgt. Ed Coleman scans the harbor as the Baltimore police Marine Unit breaks in a new powerboat to patrol the harbor. They were part of O'Malley administration efforts to combat terrorism. (Doug Kapustin / The Baltimore Sun)

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, homeland security in Baltimore was defined by color-coded terror warnings, police with automatic weapons standing guard at the Inner Harbor and officers racing from one suspicious package to another.

It was a reassuring show of force during an uneasy time.

But 10 years later — and with millions of dollars spent arming and outfitting cops in the latest weaponry and gear — the swarms of police have largely receded from public view. Front-line forces protecting Baltimore from terrorism now operate from a nondescript office park in Woodlawn.

The focus these days is on better communication among myriad local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and on analyzing tips with specific implications for Maryland and its largest cities.

Police, politicians and experts in terrorism all say that Baltimore is far safer now than it was 10 years ago, but the city remains a tantalizing target for anyone seeking for a convenient alternative to New York and the nation's capital. And fading federal funds have some officials concerned that priorities have shifted.

"If there's a threat to New York and there's a threat to Washington, D.C., it's a threat to Baltimore," said Special Agent Gerald Roberts, a supervisor in the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in Maryland.

Roberts, who was in Manhattan on Sept. 11 and sped to the World Trade Center as the second hijacked plane roared overhead seconds before impact, lost two friends and two colleagues in the towers. He said he chases down leads on possible terrorist activity "to the bitter end."

The tips, on their own, can seem meaningless: A driver on Interstate 95 sees someone looking at a bridge; a beat cop notices a car parked outside a chemical plant one day, then outside a second one the next; a security guard wonders why someone is buying 200 pounds of fertilizer.

It's Roberts' job to determine if the events have meaning.

"In the first three years after 9/11, every threat we got was a fire drill," said Richard A. McFeely, the special agent in charge of Maryland's FBI field office. "If there was even a hint of anything, we went running out in full riot gear. Now, it's a more measured response. We have a much better idea of what terrorism is."

After the terrorist attacks, Baltimore's mayor and police commissioner were among the harshest critics of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies withholding information that they said they needed to protect the city.

Edward T. Norris, who was commissioner on Sept. 11, had complained that the FBI wouldn't tell city officials the source of a tip that anthrax was about to be unleashed in Baltimore — a threat deemed credible at the time and one that led to warnings but no evacuations.

"What got me most was that the FBI didn't understand that we needed the information," Norris recalled recently. "I don't care if you overheard it in a coffee shop in Egypt. I need the information to protect the city. The key to this is communication. That keeps the country safe."

In 2003, just beyond the Baltimore Beltway in Woodlawn, state police opened the "Fusion Center," one of three dozen created nationwide to coordinate tips and investigations, but also to gain access to information.

Here, law enforcement officers from up to 28 local, state and federal agencies work together to connect disparate dispatches — from citizens calling tip lines posted on overhead highway signs to cops on traffic stops. On any given day, they examine 50 to 100 leads.

The terrorists who launched the Sept. 11 attacks had left similar clues. Six of the 9/11 hijackers had stayed in a motel on U.S. 1 in Laurel and raised suspicions while there. One had taken flight lessons outside of Washington. Another had been stopped on Interstate 95 for speeding two days before the attacks, was handed a ticket and sent on his way, with no questions asked about why he'd rented a car in New Jersey but lived in Virginia.

Authorities say such incidents would receive more scrutiny now.

Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Marcus Brown said a trooper trained in the post-Sept. 11 era would have questioned the hijacker about that rental car, and might have checked to see if his name was on a watch list. At the time, such lists were not accessible to local authorities.

"How different that traffic stop would've been today," Brown said.